However, until recently there has been a strong tendency toward abridged editions that focus on it as a moral adventure story. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; its heart is utterly in the right place (for instance, its stress on the wrongness of cruelty to animals). But the unabridged edition - see Project Gutenberg EText-No.1018 - is definitely worth reading if you never have. Like many children's classics, The Water-Babies wasn't entirely written for a child audience. Although nominally for his son Grenville, who was five, it's full of immensely erudite material that would have been way over the latter's head, and was first published in installments starting in August 1862 in the highbrow journal Macmillan's Magazine.
It reflects a number of Kingsley's concerns: his interest in natural history; an indictment of child labour; sanitation and pollution; his religious views as an Anglican clergyman (slightly non-standard ones, since the Purgatory-like afterlife Tom enters could be viewed as distinctly Catholic); his dislike of quack medicines; his dislike of certain other children's authors; and his views on Darwinism. Contemporary readers were well aware of its intent, and it received equally scholarly reviews in, for instance, the Anthropological Review (Vol. 1, No. 3 (Nov., 1863), pp. 472-476) which recognised its heavy science and highly barbed satire.
... the "land babies", for which it is ostensibly destined, must, however, attain a competent knowledge of biological controversy before they can hope to comprehend it, while the disciples of the false philosophies which it satirises, will hardly relish the castigation which it administers.
The biological controversy to which this refers concerns Darwin's newly-published Origin of Species. Kingsley, it should be remembered, was a science enthusiast (he was made a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1863) and received an advance copy of Origin of Species. It blew him away. He wrote to Darwin:
All I have seen of it awes me
I have long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species
I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made."
- The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Barnes & Noble, 2005, ISBN 0760769087
In short, Kingsley became an immediate convert to the long-running liberal Christian view that Darwinism could be reconciled with Deism, and to the controversial view that humanity itself might be open to modification. His story-within-a-story of the Doasyoulikes, who devolve into apes after climate change, is pure Darwinism in action ...
And she turned over the next five hundred years. And there they were all living up in trees, and making nests to keep off the rain. And underneath the trees lions were prowling about.
"Why," said Ellie, "the lions seem to have eaten a good many of them, for there are very few left now."
"Yes," said the fairy; "you see it was only the strongest and most active ones who could climb the trees, and so escape."
"But what great, hulking, broad-shouldered chaps they are," said Tom; "they are a rough lot as ever I saw."
"Yes, they are getting very strong now; for the ladies will not marry any but the very strongest and fiercest gentlemen, who can help them up the trees out of the lions' way."
... even if it was initiated by the sin of "doing only what they liked" (Kingsley has a downer on this, very much in tune with his now well-known style of Muscular Christianity; and Tom's final redemption and reunion with Ellie is only achieved by "going where you don't like, and helping someone that you don't like"). Some of this Doasyoulike section reveals a nasty racist streak in Kingsley, by present-day standards, where the first stage of the Doasyoulikes' degradation is that "their jaws grow large, and their lips grow coarse, like the poor Paddies who eat potatoes" - the same Irish he called "white chimpanzees" in a letter to his wife (see Racism and Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England) - and the final stage is a single 7-foot individual who is shot by a hunter after trying, and failing, to say "Am I not a man and brother?" - which fairly explicitly identifies this man-degraded-to-ape with a black person, the words being an iconic anti-slavery slogan. (Kingsley had already used the allusion in his 1857 Two Years Ago for the chapter "Am I not a woman and a sister?" concerning a subplot surrounding an actress' black ancestry).
Kingsley appears not to much like Americans, who he describes as having been made "naughty" by "being quite comfortable" and who he likens to the parliament of hoodie crows, who peck to death one of their number for refusing to be greedy - perhaps alluding to his views that post-bellum Americans had "exterminated their southern aristocracy", then forced the "northern hereditary aristocracy, the Puritan gentlemen of the old families, to retire in disgust from public life" (see Writers, Readers, and Reputations, Philip J. Waller, OUP, 2006). The Jews and the French get snipes too, and this doesn't complete the list of groups he didn't like. There's a deal of literature on his Racial Prejudices; it's hard to say whether he was about par for his time (a time when science seemed to support a scale of racial inferiority/superiority) or whether he was more than usually xenophobic.
That aside, The Water-Babies is full of many academic jokes surrounding biology and other topical subjects. For instance, its references to arguments about a "hippopotamus major" in the brain refer to the debate between TH Huxley and Richard Owen about the significance of the hippocampus minor. All in all, the unabridged Water-Babies well returns the investment of a bit of study. You can get a glimpse of the sheer strangeness and topicality by glancing at the end of Chapter 4 (courtesy of the University of Adelaide Library's e-books) and its list of Victorian quack remedies - can anyone imagine this as written for children? - tried on Professor Ptthmllnsprts to rid of him of the belief in water-babies:
Valentine Greatrakes his Stroking Cure.
Parr’s Life Pills.
The Water-Babies continues to provide academic interest even now. For instance, Charles Kingsley, H. G. Wells, and the Machine in Victorian Fiction (Colin Manlove, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Sep., 1993), pp. 212-239) explores its unusual positive focus on machines, particularly the way Kingsley describes Nature, and even divine creation, in mechanistic terms: whether the workings of a rotifer, Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid (who describes herself as working "by machinery, just like an engine; and am full of wheels and springs inside"), and Mother Carey (who sits in the Arctic at the heart of a factory making self-replicating creatures). Another interesting analysis, from a while back, is Rabelais and "The Water-Babies" (Dorothy Coleman, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Jul., 1971), pp. 511-521) which cites structure and content - such as the grimly comic, morally instructive dystopias at the "Other-end-of-Nowhere" in Chapter VIII and last, and Kingsley's repeated reference to "the coming of the Cocqcigrues" (i.e. the end of time - "Cocqcigrues" being the "Cocklicranes" of Gargantua/Chapter XLIX) showing The Water-Babies to be influenced by Rabelais.
There are a couple of critiques of particular aspects at the Victorian Web - Revising the fairytale: Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, and Charles Kingsley's Water-Babies - and Boston College Libraries has a further list of analytical texts. Though I haven't read it, the Broadview Press edition that came out earlier this year - The Water-Babies, Charles Kingsley, ed. Richard Kelly, Broadview Editions, 2008, ISBN: 9781551117737) looks to have some interesting appendices that further elucidate Kingley's influences and in-references. He wasn't above digs at other authors such as the Bostonian Samuel Griswold Goodrich; an advocate of instructional literature over imaginative who wrote as "Peter Parley", he appears as "Cousin Cramchild". Kingsley also hated American domestic novels for their "execrable goody-goody-ness" and "insipid respectability (utterly untrue to life) of their personages". This passage...
Next he saw all the little people in the world, writing all the little books in the world, about all the other little people in the world; probably because they had no great people to write about: and if the names of the books were not Squeeky, nor the Pump-lighter, nor the Narrow Narrow World, nor the Hills of the Chattermuch, nor the Children's Twaddeday, why then they were something else. And, all the rest of the little people in the world read the books, and thought themselves each as good as the President; and perhaps they were right, for every one knows his own business best.
... takes a swipe at Maria Susanna Cummins' sentimental 1854 The Lamplighter, and Susan Warner's 1850 The Wide, Wide World (the novel that Jo in Little Women spends an afternoon crying over, up in an apple tree), 1852 Queechy and 1856 Hills of the Shatemuc. I haven't been able to find any reference to what The Children's Twaddeday refers to, but I strongly suspect it's The Children's Holiday, the lead story in Mary Botham Howitt's 1853 The Dial of Love: A Christmas Book for the Young (although it's not American, the date and general style otherwise match Kingsley's pattern of dislikes).
As the Anthropological Review said:
Careful perusal, and a thorough scientific education, are preliminaries to the study of this work ...
Coming back to the present day: The Water-Babies is listed in Alasdair Gray's Lanark as a central "Difplag" (diffuse plagiarism) within the latter. Describing The Water-Babies as "a Victorian children's novel thought unreadable nowadays except in abridged form", Gray describes it in Lanark's "Index of plagiarisms" as
a dual book. The first half is a semi-realistic highly sentimental account of an encounter between a young chimney sweep from an industrial slum and an upper class girl who makes him aware of his inadequacies, Emotionally shattered, in a semi-delirious condition, he climbs a moorland, descends a cliff and drowns himself ... He is then reborn with no memory of the past in a vaguely Darwinian purgatory with Buddhist undertones ... At one point the hero, having stolen sweets, grows suspicious, sulky and prickly all over like a sea-urchin! He is morally redeemed by another encounter with the upper-class girl ... and then sets out on a pilgrimage through a grotesque region filled with the social villainies of Victorian Britain.
Although somewhat spun for similarity, this is the plot of Lanark, in which the working-class artist Duncan Thaw, depressed by a failed relationship with the middle-class Marjory Laidlaw, drowns and is reborn as "Lanark" in the dystopian city of Unthank (a dark mirror of Glasgow) where at one point he develops a disease called dragonhide and is redeemed by meeting Rima, Marjory's also-reincarnated counterpart. Lanark's apocalyptic ending even features a throwaway reference to the Cocqcigrues arriving, which is about as definitive a conclusion as you can get.